Why Your Web Strategy is, err, Wrong

June 30, 2002

I am not sure at what point children cease to feel the magic of Christmas. What is, in infancy, an almost uncontrollable excitement is, by mid adulthood, mainly a chore. The “Oh, gosh, wow!” feeling has gone, replaced by a feeling of dulled inevitability.

The Internet is a bit like Christmas. When it was new, we were all very excited. Every time we opened a box, we got a big “wow!” Now, reality has set in. Santa Claus is nowhere to be seen and most of the boxes have a “wow” factor which is on a level with the remains of last night’s takeaway. This does not mean that the Internet is dead – far from it. What it means is that we are getting used to it: for the serious Internet-based businesses out there, this is good news.

The latest data I have seen suggest that two thirds of law firms are still not “on the Web”, in the sense of either having a Web site or indeed using the Internet regularly. This seems a little low, but with 60% of UK households on line it is clear that the profession is seriously behind the game compared with their clients.

The joy of this is that, as the take-up in technology approaches saturation point for the consumer (and with decreases in the cost of ‘broadband’ access, this will happen in the very short term), the properly thought-out and commercial sites should thrive if they are well marketed. This latter aspect, the marketing, seems to me to be the vital, yet more or less ignored, aspect of having a successful Internet strategy.

So, is a well thought-out Web strategy necessary for success? Possibly, but it may just be that using the Web for the sales side of practice as opposed to the cost reduction side isn’t actually necessary for some firms.

One of the big problems, it seems to me, is that many of the Internet pundits haven’t made the logic shift from the “old world” to the new. Most current commentators argue that deal rooms, on-line document sales and the like are the future and that having no Web presence, or having a mere “brochure site”, is tantamount to suicide. In the spirit of promoting harmony, peace on earth and so on, it is my view that the “Internet will replace everything and/or get e-commerce enabled or die” theory is, for most firms, just plain WRONG. Indeed, it seems to me that many firms are approaching the Internet by doing the least important things first and the most important last.

I recently spent the day (in my capacity as the person responsible for a successful legal Web site) at the Solicitors 2002. Two comments, from Kevin Doolan, Web strategy man for Eversheds, have stuck in my mind. The first, was that dealrooms (remember dealrooms? – the “gurus” talked about little else a while ago) “basically didn’t happen”. If they didn’t work for them, they won’t for you. Whilst they will have their uses, for many firms the basic provision of legal service involves a lot of “hand holding”, which is very difficult indeed to do through a medium not involving direct verbal (and preferably visual) contact. The second comment was that the proof that the Internet was the “happening place” was made by the undeniable success of such sites as divorceonline.com, homecheck.com and compactlaw.co.uk. There is little doubt that there is a good and expanding market for the services of companies such as these. But are undefended divorce, conveyancing and off-the-peg documents really the stuff of which exciting practice profits are made? I don’t think so. The big earners are the areas which involve quality advice, negotiation and specialist skills. In these areas profits are protected because the client relies on skill, knowledge and mutual understanding. These attributes are extremely difficult to accomplish via the Internet and in practice the use of the Internet in these areas will follow the development of a solid relationship, not be a precursor to it.

What are the implications of this for law firms? The consensus view is that the brochure site is not the way to go. Why? Surely, a Web site that makes it very easy indeed to find the person/specialism you are looking for is a useful tool for clients. One of the big problems with law firms is finding the person you need, fast. A well designed Web site makes this simplicity itself. Isn’t the whole point of any advertisement to make the client or prospective client pick up the phone? After all, compared with the telephone, the Web is a very inefficient communication medium! This is particularly true given that most of the users of your Web site will be your own clients. You know this already. It is why your site URL is named after your firm, not (say) uk-law.co.uk (for which the author has waited in vain for an offer for five years)! Prospective clients who have never heard of you are relatively unlikely to find you, so ‘off the Web’ marketing has to be good to get them to find you on it. The problem there is why you would spend the money to market your Web site when it can be more efficiently spent in many cases marketing in other ways. Brochure sites are just fine, provided you resist the temptation to jazz them up with a half-hearted attempt to keep them up to date: then they look awful.

The second type of site is the sort that offers “news” in the hope that this will impress people enough to give you instructions (at least I think that is the idea). The first problem with this is that of providing sufficient current content. This takes a lot of time, especially since if you do go down the “document rich” route the content must be the right stuff. Nothing is less attractive than six-month-old “news”. Oops, I lie. Stories about the firm hiring in a new lawyer, winning a meaningless award, or doing some contract are! Clients want to know about their interests and problems. They normally don’t care at all what you are doing. If you have a content rich site, you must make sure the content is bang up to date, relevant to your client base and, critically, written from the client’s perspective. It should also, if possible, be useful.

To do this in house may be prohibitively expensive in lost chargeable time, even if your fee earners are good copy writers – and very, very few are. Most firms foul this up completely, with boring content of interest to lawyers but not clients, little ‘how to do it’ content and tired old content. not a very good return for thousands of pounds worth of lost chargeable time! It must be one of life’s better ironies that professional firms put so much effort into creating such poor content at such a high cost, when they could outsource far better content for so much less. Professional writers are professional writers because they know how to write in the ‘voice’ of the reader. Unless you do this you will not communicate with them, but it is a skill which requires a style that is hammered out of young professionals by their professional training. . With legal content, there is another problem.it has to be about law, so using a PR agency or marketing firm can be pretty risky unless the content is very shallow, in which case it will have little perceived value. Firms going down this route really do need to think it out carefully and devise a sensible answer to the key issues of marketing and content.

One good way of looking at the problem is to look at the firms who offer Web sites to the professions and to decide which look best to you. Suppliers such as PracticeWeb.com (whose product for lawyers is being launched imminently), Martindale Hubbell, Lawyersonline and Activelawyer offer competing solutions to the problem of having a Web site. All offer different levels of control, price and content provided.

The third approach is the ‘e-commerce’ type of site, whereby there is an attempt to sell services etc directly from the page. I just can’t see this working for any firm who are not already there and doing it well. Firms mainly gain clients because the client knows the firm, not because they are ‘Web-savvy’. The main areas where the Web is likely to be effective have already been covered (and covered very well) on a national basis by firms like CompactLaw. If the firm is not gearing up to complete on a national basis, the cost/benefits just don’t seem to stack up to me. Even if the decision is to market ‘to the world’, going into a market where there is established quality competition who have already travelled up the ‘learning curve’ seems unlikely to generate a worthwhile return.

If e-commerce looks like offering a lowish ‘upside potential’ for law firms, brochure sites are limited and content-rich sites are risky unless spot-on, where does that leave the Internet? The answer is that the Internet is the most powerful medium you will ever have, not because of the Internet but because you have e-mail and can use the Web to drive costs out of your firm.

If you have but two presents to put under your firm’s Christmas tree, these are the ones I would choose.


The firms that can put themselves in the position of distributing timely, quality legal news and comment to target (mainly business) clients and existing clients will earn a reputation for expertise which is worth a dozen PR firms! Yes, the content will have to be relevant, quick off the mark and high quality. Yes, you will have to manage e-mail lists and retain permission to send the mail. Yes, you will have to create a lot of content and (critically) demonstrate a practical and lateral thinking edge to your newswires to ensure loyalty and avid readership. But, do this well and the world will be your oyster – and the costs are miniscule in comparison with the costs of regularly circulating clients and targets by post.

Just look, for example, at Eversheds (E80), CMS Cameron McKenna (Law-Now), Emplaw, LawZone or Simmons & Simmons (Elexica), all of whom are building or enhancing greatly their businesses by permission-based email updates. I know it works. Starting with a page of e-mail addresses, at LawZone we have acquired 17,000 subscribers (taking over 30,000 subscriptions) in three years at a marketing cost of under 20p per subscription. You could too!

Cost Reduction and Reselling

Lastly, the pundits frequently omit to talk about the very best short-term benefit of the Internet. The ability to access information, services and tools which can either be resold to clients or used to drive costs out of the system. Take for example, training. Firms such as Mentor and 2ends offer inexpensive, high-quality, online training. You do it when you want. There is no travelling time or expense. There is no ‘day of lost chargeable time’. The potential savings are vast and there is a lot of material available. This is a complete ‘no-brainer’ for firms seeking to improve profits.

There are many other savings to be had on the Web. For example, there are firms who will help you control disbursements, do your payroll for less than it cost you to do in-house and so on. There are dozens of cost saving opportunities for law firms available via the Internet. Furthermore, there are many resale opportunities. Company searches, property searches, documents – all can be downloaded directly from the Web and resold to grateful clients who will not only pay for them, but admire your IT savvy.

Most firms have an Internet strategy that is based around their Web presence. This is a hard thing to do well and make profitable. The fast gains are to be had in mopping up the easy victories that will come from looking at the opportunities available to reduce practice costs and reselling opportunities.

I estimate that most firms can improve practice profits by £5-6000 p.a. per partner by using the Web to drive costs out of their systems and resell Internet gathered information etc to clients. Get stuck into the things that pay first!

Like every other investment, when the time comes to sign the contract, the question that should be asked is not whether it is a good investment, but whether it is the BEST investment the firm can make with the money. I’d be surprised if any law firm Web site I have seen yet would jump that particular hurdle.

PS: Last point- for your Web designers. The intended target of a law firm Web site is more likely to wear bifocals than baggy jeans. Eight point grey text on a white background looks really cool, but only until you are about 40 (ask your dad). As for Flash, just don’t go there (please!)…adding extra time for zero extra information content really doesn’t press any buttons for most of us.

Joe Reevy MSc FCA is a chartered accountant and director of legal training and consulting firm Best Practice Online Ltd (www.bestpracticeonline.com). He is also the Community Director of LawZONE (www.lawzone.co.uk) , which has grown from an idea to a market

© Bestpracticeonline Ltd 2002